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Proust: First Impressions

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Proust is difficult to read. To say that Proust is difficult to read is actually an understatement. The opening pages of Swann’s Way devote to explain why he, as a little boy, cannot sleep. At the times of his publication, readers would even write him in despair asking to ‘please tell me what your book is about.’ The gentleman behind information desk at The Strand Bookstore in New York said most readers are alternately smitten and outraged by Proust’s prose style and cannot get page page 50. Although I feel like I am in the dark at the beginning, like in a room where drapes are drawn and the only thing I know for sure is that the young narrator, longing for his mother downstairs with dinner guests, is unable to get to sleep and that this reminds him of many other sleepless nights.

The curator at The Morgan Library and Museum, which hosted the 100th anniversary of Swann’s Way show last year, gave the advise to keep reading even if the prose doesn’t immediately make sense. Now I have just got through the first section, it’s safe to say that describing Proust in terms of plot alone does no justice to the reflections, counter-reflections and musings that form so much of the immersive pleasure he offers. The language is beautiful, with bursts of music and a hidden flow of harmony. There is a continuous flow beyond the many subordinate clauses. The central concept in Proust’s work is the belief that while life goes on we are unable to bring back the true nature of past experiences intentionally. He stresses on distinction between intentional and unintentional memory.

9 Responses

  1. congratulations on starting Proust. actually the 1st volume is very accessible. in further volumes, it gets muddled ad times, at least for me, in some unending social events, but the neat thing with Proust is that as you persevered you are suddenly rewarded by gems and amazing pictures. I started last year on the anniversary of the publication of the 1st volume with the intention to read the whole thing. got bogged down and am near the end of Sodome et Gomorrhe. persevering, though slowly

    • I realize Proust cannot be devoured over a short time like I do other books. The writing is so rich with imagery down to the minute detail and begs for undivided attention. He would break off the narrative and add more peripheral information in parentheses. Yesterday I only read 20 pages but I felt like a lifetime. Many digressions and counter-reflections. I’m sure its difficulties, like its rewards, will be vast.

  2. I read a bunch of pages in a burst back in grad school and then bailed out. It always is cited as such a landmark that I feel like I should try again. Let me know if you find it worth it.

    • Yes, the first 40 or so pages devote to explaining why the narrator, as a young boy, cannot fall asleep. But it’s very rich and filled with emotional associations. It’s difficult to read because I have to really keep on top of his complicated, subordinating clauses to understand his points. Time is nonlinear. Time is evoked at the whim of the narrator.

  3. I’ve tried to read Swann’s Way twice; Alas, both times I failed to finish.

  4. This work and Moby Dick remain my nemesis.

  5. I’m not a fan of In Search of Lost Time, but I do think the first 50 pages are absolutely stunning.

    I did enjoy Swann’s Way very much, and you’re right, it is very musical.

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